May 282015

Check out this video that Matthew Cobb of Why Evolution is True just found and posted. While it’s primarily showing a pair of swifts (Apus apus) being reunited after a 9 month hiatus in Africa, check out who crashes the party (most easily seen around the 1:10 mark).

That little scuttling thing playing peekaboo from the neck feathers of the male is actually an adult fly in the family Hippoboscidae, and most likely a male Crataerina pallida, the swift louse fly. These flies are ectoparasites of birds, where they bite and feed off the blood of both nestlings and adults.

Hippoboscids, like bat flies in the family Nycteribiidae (sometimes considered a subfamily of the Hippoboscidae) that Piotr Naskrecki has been showing off this week, give birth to live, late-stage maggots that the female has reared and nourished one at a time in her abdomen. The maggots are deposited into the swift’s nest, where they pupate and then scuttle onto their nestling host. According to Hutson (1981), fly populations peak in mid June when the swift nestlings are just beginning to hatch, and steadily fall off from there until most flies are dead by mid to late August, and he stated the flies do not make the migration with the birds.

But, since these flies don’t lay eggs, they must be spending the winters in the nest boxes as pupae, awaiting the return of their hosts year after year. Hutson found that males are more prevalent early in the spring, with females to follow. This leads us to an interesting question of how this louse fly got onto this bird! The fly was already aboard the bird when it entered the box (if you watch closely you can see a white blob that moves around neck is first visible at 0:06, immediately after the male bird approaches the sitting female). This means that one of two things happened: either the male bird has in fact carried its little parasite friend down to Africa and back (something that neither Hutson nor Walker & Rotherham (2010) believe to be the case) (and assuming this was the first nestbox that the bird stopped in, which I take to be the presumption of the ornithologists who posted the video and stated it shows a male reuniting with its mate from last year in last year’s nestbox), or alternatively, the male bird did stop for a time in another nestbox where it picked up its little hitchhiker, and then proceeded on to its longterm mate. This of course raises questions about how committed these birds really are to their mates, and whether they may be getting a little action on the side (or at least exploring their other options) before settling down for the season. Since I know pretty well nothing about bird biology, if someone knows more about swift mating, bonding, and extra-pair copulation, let me know in the comments if I’m way off.

Either way, catching a glimpse of a louse fly playing peekaboo on the neck of its host may raise more questions than the initial emotional response of “WHAT IS THAT THING?!?”, and that’s pretty darn cool.

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Nov 292013

On the island of Raivavae, one of the Austral Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, buried deep beneath the surface of a swamp in mud accumulated at the foot of a stream for thousands of years, scientists have found all that remains of a unique new species of Black Fly (Simuliidae): larval head cases left behind when the flies molted into pupae. These subfossils, not yet hard and mineralized like conventional fossils yet still preserved in near-perfect condition by the mud, not only raise the question of how a tiny little fly found its way to an island in the middle of nowhere, but also provide the only evidence of a murder mystery 2 million years in the making.

The missing species on Raivavae is Simulium Inseliellum raivavaense, recently described by Douglas Craig of the University of Alberta and Nick Porch of Deakin University in Australia, from material collected in 2010. Despite the subfossil larval head capsules being the only “specimens”, Craig & Porch were able to determine S. I. raivavaense was a new species based on the shape, position, and number of teeth on the hypostoma, essentially the lower lip of a black fly larva’s mouth.

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Nov 062013

There’s a pretty remarkable fly photograph making the rounds of social media today, and while it originally had me going “Oooooh!”, the more I think about it, the more I feel like we’re staring at clouds.

It started when Ziya Tong tweeted a photo of a Goniurellia tridens (a fruit fly in the family Tephritidae) displaying its wings:

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Apr 302013

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but what do you call a wingless fly? Apterous of course!

Proving once and for all that taxonomists do indeed have a sense of humour, meet Platypalpus apterus De Freitas & Ale-Rocha.

Platypalpus apterus Diptera Hybotidae


Winglessness has independently evolved more than a hundred times across the order Diptera, but as this dance fly (Hybotidae) illustrates, the results are anything but pedestrian. Like its fully-winged relatives, Platypalpus apterus is an active hunter, only in this case scouring beneath the bark of Polylepis trees for earthbound arthropods unable to escape its piercing beak.

Considering Platypalpus apterus‘ inability to fly, it’s poetic that it was collected high above the clouds in the Andean paramo of Ecuador, in an area that is as beautiful as it is barren. In fact, aptery is incredibly common at high altitudes, with many different fly families exhibiting high levels of wingless diversity on mountainous islands set amongst the sky. There are several theories on why it may be advantageous for flies to forego their wings, including as a defense against strong winds capable of carrying individuals away and colder, cloudier conditions at altitude impacting the flies’ ability to warm up their flight muscles.


Nominate this species for New Species of the Year!
De Freitas-Silva R.A.P. & Ale-Rocha R. (2013). A new apterous species of Platypalpus Macquart (Diptera: Hybotidae, Tachydromiinae) from Ecuador, Zootaxa, 3636 (4) 590-596. DOI:

Jul 272012
Banded Tussock Moth - Halysidota tessellaris

Banded Tussock Moth – Halysidota tessellaris – Toronto, Ontario

While some common names are great descriptors of a moth’s biology, some can be rather deceiving. Take the Banded Tussock moth for example, which although banded, isn’t a true tussock moth! While the “true” tussock moths are in the subfamily Lymantriinae, this moth is actually a tiger moth in the Arctiinae. The larvae of this moth have large tufts of hairs that are reminiscent of those found on “true” tussock moth caterpillars, which is where the common name comes from. These tufted larvae can be found feeding on a wide diversity of deciduous trees.

Tiger moths are known for their ability to hear incoming sonar pings of bat predators, and some have even evolved sonic countermeasures. The Banded Tussock moth was one of the first moths shown to protect themselves from bats by emitting high-frequency sounds (Dunning & Roeder, 1965). Remembering back to my undergraduate Physiology classes, I recall there being 2 ways in which these sonic displays could deter bats: 1) as a warning that the moth was distasteful and the bat should move on to something more tasty (the acoustic equivalent to the bright colours found on many other tiger moths and insects), and 2) some moths emitted a frequency so close to the bat’s sonar that they could disrupt the bat’s orientation and become hidden in a curtain of sonic feedback. Which method this species enlists I’m not sure, but I find it amazing that some moths have adopted such extreme defenses.

Of course, being loud isn’t going to save you from all potential threats, like the tachinid parasitoid Blondelia hyphantriae.

Dunning, D.C. & Roeder, K.D. (1965). Moth Sounds and the Insect-Catching Behavior of Bats, Science, 147 (3654) 174. DOI: 10.1126/science.147.3654.173

Nov 152011

Today was a bit of an oddity for a large meeting; the morning was chalk full of talks and poster presentations, but absolutely no scientific content all afternoon, but rather full of societal business meetings. This means I ran around like mad all morning and then sat on my hands all afternoon, so it’ll be a bit of a light review today.

As I mentioned, all of the student talks were this morning in order for the President’s Prizes to be awarded this evening. I ended up sitting in on 9 or 10 talks as well as exploring the poster session, so I was able to get a pretty good feel for the level of proficiency displayed, and was it ever high! I don’t think I went to a single talk or saw a single poster which I wasn’t inspired or awed by! Everyone seems to be doing fantastic research, whether revising Neotropical cicada taxonomy, studying the evolution of eusociality in carpenter bees, or exploring the relationships of Australian horse flies, every talk I sat in on had me entertained and curious about the hypotheses they were working on! Not only were the talks well presented, but the slides were well designed, and the research given in an understandable medium, immersing the audience in the project at hand. There was even a student describing the puparium of a North American Neriid fly (a group of flies very closely related to the Micropezidae I study)! I couldn’t have asked for a better morning of talks!

I just wanted to mention how great the new ESA Ento-2011 iPhone App is! It has allowed me to easily keep track of when and where I want to be, who’s speaking and what their talk number is, which I found to be a good way to keep track of citations on Twitter. Normally I’d need to fumble around with my big book of titles, switching pages and losing my spot while wasting valuable talk time, but the app has done an amazing job of keeping me on track and in the right room. Kudos to the ESA for developing and sharing a great tool!

Over lunch I took in the vendor displays again now that there weren’t as many people hanging around, and then looked into the ESA Career Center to see what sort of positions were available. Turns out that it’s not a good time to be looking for an entomological job or graduate position, as there were very few advertisements this year! The last time I was at ESA the binders were stuffed full of job, faculty and graduate postings, but this year there may have been 2 dozen total, with very few looking for ecologists and none interested in taxonomy. Whether this is a normal pattern and we’re in a lull, or whether this is a delayed effect of the economic downturn, I’m not sure, but it was a little disheartening. I suppose it can only get better from here, right?

After finishing up the slides for my last talk, I met with Ignasi Bartomeus (@ibartomeus), a pollination ecology post-doc at Rutgers who I’ve been corresponding with on Twitter since Sunday, to have a beer and talk insects. We had a great discussion about the value of social media for public outreach and the value of natural history collections to ecologists. It was enlightening conversation for me, and one that wouldn’t have happened had I not traveled to Reno, or hadn’t been using Twitter! Social Media for the Win again!

Finally, I met with the rest of the Cerceris fumipennis research crew for a brainstorming session on how to continue the work and discuss Wednesday’s symposium. We ended up crashing the Arkansas/Auburn/Clemson/Tennessee Alumni Reception (shh, don’t tell) and sat in the corner discussing new ideas for the next field season. If you want to see some passionate, dedicated entomologists committed to a research project they fully believe in, then you should come out Wednesday afternoon in room A12 for the Biosurveillance symposium!

Tomorrow is an extremely full day, with talks in almost every slot that I am looking forward to seeing! I’ll be taking plenty of notes, that’s for sure!

Jan 272011

Flies are cool. You might even say they’re phat (I know, I’m pretty fly for a white guy). But a newly described dance fly species (Empididae) from Japan takes the term “phat” to an all new level. Meet Empis jaschhoforum:

Empis jaschhoforum male morphs from Daugeron et al. 2011

Figures 1a-c from Daugeron et al., 2011

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Mar 272010

Recently I had the chance to watch the Charles Darwin biopic Creation, starring Paul Bettany (A Knight’s Tale, The Da Vinci Code) and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream). Based on a retrospective biography by Darwin’s own great-great-grandson Randal Keynes OBE (Annie’s Box), Creation follows the life and times of Darwin and his family as he struggles with his world-altering theory.

Courtesy of

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